Losses Mount, Fears Overwhelm, and a Life-Ending Decision Is Made

Walter Buczynski was a top executive at a Maryland mortgage lender before he killed his wife and jumped off a bridge last January.

K. Upender was a distraught stock speculator in India who suffered steep losses in the Indian stock market this fall, according to the police, just before he chose to open the gas line in his house, light a match and kill himself, his wife and his 2-year-old son.


Mr. Buczynski, 59, who lived in an affluent suburb in New Jersey and made close to $330,000 in 2007, and Mr. Upender, a 32-year-old former stock broker who had taken to trading stocks out of his home in Hyderabad, a fast-growing city in central India, were worlds apart.

What they had in common was a livelihood in the financial industry, a wrenching downturn in that industry and death by their own hands.

The reason for a suicide, particularly one that also involves homicide, is never cut and dried. Mr. Buczynski, for example, left a note saying that problems with his marriage caused him to kill himself and his wife.

Although there are no hard statistics yet to show an increase in suicides related to the financial crisis, anecdotal reports are coming from around the globe.

As markets continue to tumble worldwide, with the prospect of a deep global recession to follow, some experts predict suicide could increase as those who once enjoyed the fruits of a global asset boom watch their fortunes evaporate in the broadest and most abrupt destruction of wealth since the great crash of 1929.

Suicide reports have come from a wide variety of places, involving a diverse range of people. A chief executive of an Arizona-based commercial lender wore a tuxedo, swallowed pills and lay down to die in June as his company collapsed. A suburban stock broker in Connecticut jumped from an 11th-story window in July; a private equity financier based in London leapt in front of a train in August.

And last month, a onetime dot-com millionaire shot five family members and himself in an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles, blaming the financial crisis for his woes.

Those deaths are the most extreme manifestations of a wider mental health challenge presented by the economic malaise.

“The majority of the calls I am getting now are from people overly stressed over their finances,” said Daniel J. Reidenberg, a psychologist and the executive director of SAVE, a Minneapolis-based suicide prevention organization. “And I have talked to business executives as well as people who have just lost their jobs. The severity of the credit crunch is causing people to engage in more extreme behavior.”

While stories of financial executives jumping from tall buildings on Wall Street during the 1929 crash have long been part of the popular lore, experts and academics say there were only a few instances of such behavior as the market plunged.

Most of that era’s suicides came in the years after the crash as the Great Depression gathered steam.

“My research showed that a lot of people committed suicide in the privacy of their own homes as their fortunes and reputations were depleted,” said Selwyn Parker, the author of “The Great Crash.” “It happened all over the world — in New York, the bushes of Australia, Germany and Austria.”

In fact, the highest suicide rate recorded in the United States was 17 out of 100,000 people in 1932, when unemployment peaked at 25 percent. That compares with 11 out of 100,000 people in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available. The reported total in 2005 was 32,637.

Anecdotally, it would seem that more finance-related suicides stem from people losing their homes in foreclosures. However, the smaller cluster of executives who have taken their lives suggests that the global collapse of asset values has been enough to persuade some people of means and high position that their lives were without hope.

Steven Stack, a leading researcher of suicide trends at Wayne State University, said that Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, reached a conclusion more than 100 years ago that holds true today. “His argument was that those who are the highest suicide risk are those with the greatest fortunes who lose the most and have the furthest to fall,” Mr. Stack said.

Scott Coles, the 48-year-old chief executive of Mortgages Inc., an aggressive lender to some of Arizona’s largest commercial development projects, experienced that kind of precipitous downturn.

He became a multimillionaire by signing off on large commercial loans that were financed by high-yielding mortgage investments — a business strategy that resulted in the collapse of his company and of his prominent reputation.

The police ruled his death in June a suicide, and his company filed for bankruptcy later that month.

At 82, Edwin Rachleff was nearing the end of his long career as a broker, most recently running A. G. Edwards’s New London branch in Connecticut. He was a pillar of his local community and had been married to his wife of 60 years.

But on July 28, one of his main clients, the $12 million New London Security Federal Credit Union, was declared insolvent by regulators and shut down. That day, he leapt to his death from the 11th floor of a building.

Investigators are examining his ties to the defunct credit union.

Mr. Rachleff left no note, but he was said to be upset over his worsening eyesight and the possibility that he might lose his broker’s license.

When Kirk Stephenson, 47, jumped in front of the morning commuter train that would have taken him from his country home to his office in London, he left no note either.

Friends and family were in shock, as there were no evident signs of distress from Mr. Stephenson, who was married and had an 8-year-old son.

While no public explanation has been given, his death came in late September, as Olivant, the small investment company where he worked as chief operating officer, was confronted with the news that substantial assets it held at Lehman Brothers would not be recovered anytime soon because of the investment bank’s bankruptcy.

Karthik Rajaram, 45, who had founded an Internet business incubator, was an out-of-work investor living in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood when he fatally shot his three children, wife and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself in early October. In a letter addressed to the police found at the site of the shootings, Mr. Rajaram blamed economic hardships for his actions.

Although research is scant, Howard Brenner, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, says that at higher income levels, those suffering financial distress will on occasion lash out at those closest to them.

“If these people are not alive,” Mr. Brenner said, “they will not be in a position to rebuke the head of household or suffer further embarrassment.”